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4 Bizarre But True Military Defections

By Edited Apr 6, 2015 0 0

Throughout the history of warfare, desertion has been commonplace. Countless soldiers have abandoned their units, because of fear, or out of a sense repulsion at what they've been ordered to do. Far fewer have actually defected, that is to say crossed over to those their leaders had branded enemies or terrorists.  Between 1944 and 1965, these four men did just that. Three later faced prosecution and punishment; two of those three are still alive.

Roy Courlander

Roy Nicolas Courlander was one of a small number of British soldiers - probably fewer than a hundred - who in World War II defected to Nazi Germany. His case is all the more interesting because Courlander is a Jewish name.

Roy Courlander

Born illegitimately in London in 1914, he was adopted by a Lithuanian-born Jewish businessman and his wife. Courlander's adoptive father had business interests in the South Pacific, and the young Courlander lived and worked there for a period. Arriving in New Zealand in 1938, in short order he found a job, was jailed for breaking into a house, got married, and joined the New Zealand Army (the photo here shows him soon after enlistment). Sent to Europe, he was captured by the Germans in Greece in April 1941.

Courlander spoke French and German, and was used by the Germans as an interpreter and laborer. Fooling the Nazis into believing he was of White Russian origin, he began in late 1943 making propaganda broadcasts aimed at Great Britain. In January 1944, he became one of the first six members of the Britisches Freikorps (British Free Corps or BFC), part of Nazi Germany's effort to build an international coalition against Soviet Russia. By that stage of the war, the Waffen-SS already boasted units recruited from more than a dozen European countries. Among them were Scandinavians, Muslims from Bosnia and Albania, and citizens of the Soviet Union. BFC personnel were issued SS tunics with Union flags (shown below).

British Free Corps Tunic
How enthusiastic Courlander was for the Nazi cause isn't clear. Many of the 59 Commonwealth subjects known to have joined the BFC later claimed they joined in order to sabotage the group, or (as Courlander maintained) because they'd have a better chance of escaping. Psychologists may wonder if his defection signaled deep-seated anger against his Jewish adoptive parents, but no evidence of this is available. It does seem that in September 1944 in Belgium, Courlander took up arms against the Germans, and quickly surrendered to a British officer on the frontline. Nonetheless, a postwar court wasn't impressed and sentenced him to 15 years' imprisonment, of which he served six. After the war he held a series of jobs, dying in Australia in 1979.

Mike Flanagan

Not much is known about Mike Flanagan. No made-for-TV movie depicts his life, and no proper biography has been written. It seems he was never interviewed in depth by a historian or journalist. But if any of the men featured here can be said to have showed heroism, it would surely be Flanagan. He's also the only one of the four who was never forced to explain his actions to a court.

Sources agree Flanagan was born in Ireland, probably in 1929, and that he lied about his age so he could join the British Army during World War II. He said he was present at the liberation by British soldiers of the Nazi-operated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. However, some others who made the same claim (notably actor Dirk Bogarde) were later found to have made their accounts up. 

If Flanagan did indeed witness the horrors of Belsen, it may well account for his later actions. He stayed in the army after the war and was posted to Palestine, which at that time was administered by the UK under a League of Nations and then UN mandate. By 1946, the British authorities were struggling to contain an insurgency led by, among others, Menachem Begin (1913-1992), later Israel's prime minister.

On May 14, 1948 Jewish leaders in Palestine declared the independence of the State of Israel. Sympathetic to Zionism, just six weeks later - and several months before major powers recognized the new country - Flanagan and another British soldier, Harry McDonald, took two of their unit's Cromwell tanks (like the one pictured below) and delivered them to the nascent Israeli Army. Both deserters went on to serve in the Israeli armed forces. Flanagan later converted to Judaism so he could marry a woman named Ruth Levy. After her death, he retired to Canada, where he died in early 2014. His remains were sent to Israel for interment beside his wife and their son.

A Cromwell tank in an Israeli museum

Charles Robert Jenkins

Soldier, defector, and now minor tourist attraction, Charles Robert Jenkins (born 1940) isn't the only American to have defected to North Korea. Between 1961 and 1982, at least four other US soldiers serving in South Korea crossed the minefields which separate the territory controled by Pyongyang from that part of the peninsula ruled by Seoul. Because he's the only one of the five to return from the north, we know something about his motives and his experiences in the North, where he spent 39 years. 

Drunk and apparently fearful he'd soon be deployed to the warzone in Vietnam, Jenkins crossed the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) on the night of January 4, 1965. His welcome was far from warm: He spent almost all of the first seven years in confinement, and was forced to study the ideology of Kim Il Sung (the founder and first leader of North Korea) until he'd memorized every detail in Korean. By the early 1970s he was teaching English, acting in North Korean propaganda movies, and doing translation work for the regime. The North Carolina native was, he says, given insufficient rations and kept under constant surveillance. A tattoo he'd gotten while in the US Army w

Charles Robert Jenkins
as removed without anesthetic.

But Jenkins's life in the North wasn't totally bleak. He met and married Hitomi Soga (born 1959), a Japanese citizen who'd been abducted by North Korean agents in 1978. They had two daughters. Following pressure from the Japanese government, Soga was allowed to visit her homeland in 2002; once there, she never returned. It took two years of intense diplomacy before Jenkins (pictured here in 2007) and the girls were eventually permitted to leave the North. The family was reunited in Indonesia, then flew to Japan.

Tokyo requested a pardon for Jenkins, who immediately enjoyed celebrity status in Japan, but Washington refused. The deserter was issued a new uniform and reported for duty, whereupon he was arrested by military police. On November 3, 2014 Jenkins admitted desertion and aiding the enemy. Charges of making disloyal or seditious statements were dropped and he was sentenced to 30 days' confinement, of which he served 24. He also lost all back pay and pension benefits. The following year, he was permitted to visit the US and see his 91-year-old mother.

According to a lengthy profile published in 2013, Jenkins and his wife now reside in his wife's hometown, on Sado Island off Japan's west coast, and makes a living selling traditional crackers to visiting tourists, many of whom come by as much to see the famous ex-defector as to pick up some souvenirs.

Robert Garwood

Considered by some Vietnam War veterans as a "turncoat traitor," but maintaining he was always held against his will, Robert Garwood (born 1946) is perhaps the most controversial American veteran of the Vietnam War.

A high school dropout with a below average IQ, Garwood had been in the US Marine Corps for two years by fall 1965. At that time he was serving as a driver for intelligence officers based at Danang (where marine units had landed that spring, as shown in the photo below). On September 28 - just ten days before his tour of duty was scheduled to end - he left his barracks and ended up in Viet Cong captivity. Over the next eight years, he came into contact numerous times by other American POWs. Yet, when American involvement in the war ended in early 1973, Garwood wasn't one of the 591 POWs repatriated by Hanoi.

Marines in Danang

Why he didn't return home, and what exactly he did during the 14 years he spent in communist-controlled parts of Vietnam, has never been determined; it's generally accepted that Garwood's varying accounts of what happened to him during this period, and his assertions that after 1973 he saw other Americans who hadn't been released, are full of holes. Neither the US government nor Garwood's family in Indiana received any news about him until early 1979, when a Finnish employee of the World Bank was passed a note while staying in Hanoi. The note was written by Garwood, and in due course the marine was permitted to leave the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Garwood was court martialed on his return. On February 5, 1981 he was found guilty of having worked for the enemy as an interpreter, an informer within POWs camp, and an interrogator of American prisoners, as well as guarding his fellow POWs on behalf of the Viet Cong, and trying to indoctrinate them with pro-Hanoi viewpoints. Yet the court's punishment was light, perhaps because some of the ex-prisoners who'd criticized his behavior in the POW camps nevertheless opposed the court martial, saying that at times Garwood had aided them by passing on information and extra food. The court ordered that the marine forfeit all back pay and benefits, but wouldn't have to go to jail. In the years since, the former marine hasn't won much sympathy, on account of lying to those investigating POW/MIA issues, and wrecking a marriage.



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